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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) health centre

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Supplements for irritable bowel syndrome

No one supplement can improve all the symptoms linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and scientific evidence has found that some supplements commonly recommended for IBS may not provide any benefits at all. The supplements included here are ones for which there is some scientific evidence that they may be helpful in reducing the symptoms of IBS.

However, while a supplement may improve one of the symptoms of IBS, it can also aggravate another symptom. Keep a diary to take notes of changes in symptoms that occur if you plan to add a new supplement or change the amount you use. Don't forget to also keep track of your food, drink and supplements, and your symptoms to ensure a change of diet is not the cause for any adverse reactions.

Which supplements are suitable for treating the symptoms of IBS?

Fibre

Adding soluble fibre to your diet, such as isapghula husk or powder, or foods high in soluble fibre such as oats, can help bulk up stools, making them easier to pass in people who have constipation. (However, people with IBS should avoid foods with insoluble fibre such as wheat bran.) Fibre supplements can also increase discomfort and swelling that may worsen abdominal pain, so increase them gradually.

Probiotics

Our digestive tract contains trillions of 'good' bacteria that are important for good health, but IBS can knock them out of balance. Taking probiotics may help rebalance the 'good' bacteria inside us. Probiotics are living microorgasims, often bacteria, which are much like the bacteria that are normally found in the digestive tract. The NHS says there is no evidence to show that probiotics help with IBS. However, if people do decide to try them, they should follow the manufacturer's instructions. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) advises that if someone with IBS decides to take probiotics then they should take these daily for at least 4 weeks to determine if taking them helps reduce IBS symptoms.

Prebiotics are preparations of complex sugars, designed to feed the beneficial strains of probiotics. It is thought they may encourage the natural probiotic bacteria within the digestive tract. There is little scientific evidence of this, but one study has found that it may reduce bloating. Symbiotics combine the prebiotics and probiotics in one product.

Chinese herbal remedies

Several trials have found that Chinese herbal preparations may help reduce symptoms. In one study a preparation containing bitter candytuft, chamomile flower, peppermint leaves, caraway fruit, liquorice root, lemon balm leaves, celandine herbs, angelica root and milk thistle fruit provides overall relief, though the researchers could not say which ingredients may be responsible. Other studies have also shown commercially prepared Chinese herbal remedies can help improve the symptoms of IBS, and that individually prepared ones provided no extra benefit over the commercially prepared ones. NICE has recommended that more research is needed into how Chinese herbal remedies may help reduce the symptoms of IBS.

Peppermint oil

Available in capsule form, by prescription or over the counter, peppermint oil helps relax the muscles of the bowels, which can reduce the symptoms of IBS. A scientific review of trails in which peppermint oil was used to reduce the symptoms of IBS has found convincing evidence that it is helpful. Avoid biting into or chewing peppermint oil capsules because the contents can be an irritant. Possible side effects include heartburn, a burning sensation around the anus, blurred vision and feeling sick.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on September 10, 2013

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